Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Since this blog should ideally be about more than me, I'm going to try to review some of the books I read for fun (no school books--most of them suck, anyway).

Let's start with Dark Places by Gillian Flynn.  I read the first 30 pages or so standing in Borders one day and I was hooked.  (Yes, there is such a thing as a literary thriller.)  I checked the book out from the library a few weeks later (sorry, Gillian--broke grad student, you understand, right?).  The book follows Libby Day, survivor of a strange massacre that left her mother and two sisters dead--and her older brother in prison, judged guilty by a jury of his peers.

After going through something so terrible, you'd expect Libby to be a bit damaged--and she is.  Deliciously so.  That's part of what made me remember this book.  Libby's voice is haunted yet apathetic.  She's a slacker, but forgivably so.  The first few lines tell you exactly what she's about:  "I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.  Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it."  Freakin' cool, right?

Libby's voice is what carried me through the book.  This presents a slight problem in that the book also contains numerous flashback chapters told by Libby's brother, Ben, and her mother, Patty.  These chapters lead you up to the infamous massacre, but they start to pall about halfway through the book.  Ben is tormented and largely inept--the reader pities him, but his voice doesn't have the snap that Libby's does.  Same for Patty--the reader feels pity, but at some point, it feels like enough is enough.  I'm not reading this book to hear about Ben's abominable girlfriend, pot-smoking friends, or Patty's money troubles.

These other events and voices must be present, but they didn't need to be *so* present, if that makes sense.  The novel seemed to drift away from Libby's voice and into the pull of the past, into the reasons for the massacre.  And while the book is incredibly well-written, it felt like a bit of a bait-and-switch.  I wanted every page to contain Libby's slacker-delusional thoughts and awesomely bad attitude.  I found myself rushing through Ben's and Patty's chapters, wanting to get back to Libby.  And then when I did get back to Libby, her chapters became mostly about the people she was interrogating.  Double whammy!

Flynn pulls it all off, however, by the sheer strength of her writing.  This woman does amazing things with verbs.  She doesn't grab the obvious; she thinks about what the character is doing and pulls a verb out of nowhere that instantly lets you picture the action just as it appears.  Here are some examples:

  • "A whoof of cigarette stink burped out of the cushions."
  • "My head was whirling, my eyes unable to hold on to anything: a tree, the sky, a rabbit spooking away from me."
  • "The woman's black hair speared down her shoulders, violent-looking."
  • "I pictured her hot breath tunneling into his tiny snail ear."
She's equally good with adjectives.  Just pick up the book and flip to any page--you'll find something unusual used to describe something familiar.  

The verdict?  A wonderful read, a wonderful writer.  I forgive the bait-and-switch and the way Libby's voice flattens and disappears toward the end of the book.  By that point, Flynn has you hooked and you can't wait to see what really happened during the massacre.  This would be unputdownable if more of the story were in Libby's angry, disillusioned voice.  Maybe next time?  I'm already looking forward to Flynn's next book.